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Writing in a Trigger-Happy World

Image - iStockphoto: Antonius
Image – iStockphoto: Antonius

Warning: This Column May Make You Angry

No, not that kind of trigger. We’re not talking gun violence today, although I encourage you to do so, every chance you get—it’s that important.

But, as it happens, I’ve just demonstrated what we are talking about: trigger warnings.

If my provocation for you today had been about gun violence, would you consider it to be my job to warn you of that?—just in case you’d suffered one of the unspeakable experiences that far too many of our fellow citizens are having in this age of gunpowder and rage?

Rage cover by M.S. Corley [1]Speaking of rage, would you say that the author Zygmunt Miłoszewski, whose Rage [2] is out from AmazonCrossing this month in its English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones [3], owes you a warning that its story involves domestic abuse? Miłoszewski forcefully engages his readers in examinations of various social ills in his books. Another of his novels, for example, revolves around anti-semitism. Want a trigger warning for that?

I bring this up because this week Colleen Hoover, an author with Judith Curr’s Atria Books, has written well to the question of trigger warnings.

It Ends With Us [4]Her It Ends With Us [5] is out this month from Atria and, Hoover writes, “I’ve received quite a number of negative reviews in relation to the lack of a trigger warning for the subject matter…and for writing about such unhappy things.”

Personally, I might need a trigger warning for male love interests named Atlas and Ryle, but that’s just me being me, what an ass I am, imagine suggesting that the romance genre has a thing for fanciful character names, I’ll just shut up about all that, you’re welcome.

But seriously. Hoover is making such a valid point, one we all need to consider.

She’s made the choice on It Ends With Us to add this line to her sales page [6] in deepest, darkest Amazonia (where the consumer-reviewers run wild and the drumbeats are so ominous): “This book contains graphic scenes and very sensitive subject matter.”

Should she have to do this?

Hoover, in My Thoughts On Trigger Warnings [7], writes:

As a fellow reader with my fair share of past experiences, I understand that there are issues some people do not want to read about. But as a writer, there are many things I don’t want revealed in the blurbs of my books.

And David Vandagriff picks up the point at The Passive Voice [8], ably coming to her side:

PG has enough experience in life to know that the number of ideas or concepts that will upset someone somewhere approaches infinity…When ebooks can be distributed around the world within a few hours, it is almost certain that a writer in one culture is capable of disturbing a reader in another culture with no intent to do so. Indeed, it may be impossible to discuss some topics without upsetting readers somewhere in the world.

Of course, his input triggers 113 comments. Hoover’s piece triggers 79 comments.

Congratulations, we now need trigger warnings about trigger warnings.

The surrealism of this Summer of Darkness [9] already Trumps any trigger warnings that might once have been needed for bug-phobic readers about Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. 

Here’s my provocation for you:

How can we ask authors to ply the spectacular range and radiance of human experience if they’re expected to provide trigger warnings about any and all potentially upsetting elements of their work?

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

Is That Story Loaded?

Oh, gosh, do you feel triggered by my trigger? Would you like Writer Unboxed to provide a safe space where you could observe gently changing flowery landscapes for a few minutes, perhaps with some really good spa music, the kind that includes that drippy sound—the pristine dew! arriving to wash away all fears!

Image - iStockphoto: Sage 78
Image – iStockphoto: Sage 78

Maybe you’d prefer two more weeks of NBC’s grotesquely sentimentalist coverage of the Rio Olympic Games—not enough Kleenexes in the world—each fabulous athlete reduced to a quaking child with stories of how her or his parents drove them to gymnastics and swimming practice every single day. (As opposed to what, having the six-year-olds drive themselves?)

Does genuine sports coverage really have something to do with triggering a sob-fest every time an American medals? The good programmers of NBC seem to think so. Let’s see that warning.

You might be surprised how real this is for some. Here are a few lines from one comment at Vandagriff’s site:

Not all readers read to experience an emotional response. Positive ones, yes, but if a book makes me cry because a character I love gets killed or something like that, that is a bad reading experience for me. I don’t pleasure-read to experience that. I feel angry and maybe even betrayed and I kinda want to punch the author in the face and throw away all her books.

But, of course, I can wipe this smile of smug derision right off my own face if I consider a “self-harming” teen who’s in a delicate recovery stage and stumbles into a tale that suddenly starts exploring the topic.

On the other hand, I read one of Vandagriff’s respondents writing, “Too many people seem intent on child-proofing the world rather than world-proofing the child (or themselves).” And I’m saying, right, bring on more triggers.

It’s one of those issues, isn’t it? You stand on one foot. You stand on the other foot.

But it relates, for me, I’ve discovered, to my own dislike of “disease of the week” approaches to literature and other media.

The Scarlet Letter [10]When we wander down the wrong paths of political correctness, it’s frequently in search of infrastructure, framework, protectionist guardrails we’ve come to believe that society owes us. Entitlement sizzles on the grills of Labor Day so loudly.

And how can we let the populist fondness for a safety-netted existence create this kind of censorship of literature? Did Hawthorne have to warn of triggers in The Scarlet Letter [11]? Do we need to rush back and slap some big, honking scarlet warning on that thing? CONTAINS MATERIAL RELATED TO ADULTERY!

What do you think? Do you feel compelled to offer trigger warnings for things your readers may not care to encounter? Should everyone? Are you feeling triggered? Ready, set…

About Porter Anderson [12]

@Porter_Anderson [13] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [14], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [15] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [16]

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